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Judith White – Getting Inside Her Own Head

In a review of her novel Across the Dreaming Night, Iain Sharp called Judith White ’second to none when it comes to depicting states of anxiety, both comic and poignant.’ Along with winning various awards for her short fiction, she has twice been shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Awards, for Across the Dreaming Night, and for her collection of short stories, Visiting Ghosts.

In this interview she discusses how her own experience of anxiety makes her work better. When we asked her to interview herself about the workings of her creative mind, she suggested instead that she might be best questioned by two women closest to the action, characters from her latest work in progress…

Judith White Inside Her Own Head

Alex : Nessie?

Nessie : Hmmm?

Alex : Are you awake?

Nessie : Well, I suppose so, Alexandra. I must be. I’m talking to you.

Alex : No need to be haughty with me, Nessie. I was just going to say that she visited us, were you aware of that? Judith. I thought we were disappearing, but Judith turned on the light and looked at us.

Nessie : Oh, is that what that was? Yes, I felt the glare but I closed my eyes. Hmmm, I’m not sure that I’m hopeful that it means anything.

Alex : Don’t be silly. She’ll be back, I know.

Nessie : I was beginning to feel quite comfortable in this state of darkened inertia. I’m getting old you know. And lazy. I’m not sure that I’m up to all this scrutiny, all this getting up and living again.

Alex : There you go again. Look, anything is better than oblivion. But on the other hand, I have to say I’m pissed off. She got us into this situation and then abandoned us, just like that.

Nessie : Yes, but she’s set me up for a lot of pain. Oblivion might be better than that. Actually, I don’t really know where we are or what oblivion really is.

Alex : We’re in her head. We live in her head, in the world that’s in her head.

Nessie : She must have a big head. I can’t say I understand any of this.

Alex : What really annoys me is the way she’s deserted us. She’s like a puppeteer who’s pulled her hand out.

Nessie : There’s probably other stuff going on. She’s got her own life to love. Ha ha, I mean, to live. That was a Freudian slip.

Alex : It’s strange when you think of it. She’s living her life in her world, and inside her head is our world, and inside our heads, we both have our worlds too. And she, she might be an entity in someone else’s head.

Nessie : Oh dear, Alex. I’m confused. I don’t like the feeling of just being suspended like this. I feel like a flag in the wind flapping and fraying away to nothing. It takes you to those questions of who made the world and what was there before that and how will it end. If she doesn’t come back to us, how will we end? If she dies, will we be confined in this space of unfinished story, or will we die too? It seems strange that we’d die too, just because she did.

Alex : It depends on whether we live in her head or whether we have our own separate existence. I mean, it’s because of her, it was her, Judith White, who launched us into where we are now.

Nessie : … so you’re suggesting, if she died, we’d be left here, stuck.

Alex : Maybe. But we’d probably slowly wither, without being fed. We need her guidance as to what to do next. She’s nuts, really.

Nessie : You shouldn’t say things like that about our creator.

Alex : It’s not a value judgement, it’s just the way she is. She’s an insomniac. She’s anxious. She cares too much and doesn’t care enough. She cares so much that it becomes too big for her and then she lets everyone down by going away. I think that’s what’s happening with us.

Nessie : Sounds like excuses to me. What’s anxiety got to do with it?

Alex : Well, she’s so anxious to do a good job that it becomes too much. If she doesn’t do things, then she can’t fail at them because they’re not done. And if no one hassles her about them, she’ll gradually leave them alone, but she’ll feel bad about it. Then she’ll feel so bad about it that it becomes too big. Overload. It’ll be this big thing hanging over her. And then finally it swallows her up.

Nessie : Are you talking about us?

Alex : Not just us. About a lot of things. Have you noticed sometimes, she crawls in here and joins us. Silently, like a heavy night shadow, and she just curls up in a corner with her back to us. I never know whether she’s listening or sleeping.

Nessie : What? She crawls into her own head? Sounds like gymnastics to me. I’ve never noticed her.

Alex : Well, it’s true. And then just as suddenly she gets up and slips away again.

Nessie : That doesn’t sound particularly anxious, more like a highfalutin way of describing laziness.

Alex : Well, it’s not. When she does get it together to do things … say, if someone starts hassling her to do things, like giving her a deadline … she’ll get into gear. And she usually does a job that’s not too bad, and then she feels good again, until the next job or task or project starts building up once more.

Nessie : Perhaps we should hassle her.

Alex : What do you mean?

Nessie : Well, we could hassle her to start moving our story ahead , to start winding us up and moving us along. We’ve been patient enough. Actually you’re right, I do want to get moving, to come to life again. And I want to find out whether I lose all my money.

Alex : You seem to know more about this than I do.

Nessie : There’s more to me than meets the eye! So … let’s be squeaky wheels. Show her we’re here and that we won’t go away! Because basically, when she’s writing, she’s happier than when she’s doing anything else. So we’d be doing her a favour. When she’s actually head down and working, the world’s her oyster.

Alex : So we must be her little pearls! Ha ha. But how are we going to go about this?

Nessie : Well, we’re in her head, so let’s just get into her thoughts. Just sit with arms crossed, not moving. Get in the way. Like fat old elephants sitting in front of the Santa parade!

Alex : Or kids hitting pots with spoons in the middle of a concert.

Nessie : Yes, we’ll annoy her, like babies wanting a breast, like alcoholics wanting booze, like …

Alex : Anyway, yeah yeah … I think we’ve made our point. So what are we going to do?

Nessie : Just annoy her. Like you’re annoying me. So that she has to write our story to shut us up.

Alex : But what we will we do?

Nessie : Just get on and live our lives, noisily, so she notices …

Alex : But we’re dependent on her…

Judith : Oi. Stop your squabbling you two.

Alex : Hey Nessie, it’s working.

Nessie : Well, I never! There she is! Our creator!

Judith : OK, stop fighting. I’m sorry. I’ll come back to you soon.

Nessie : Please do. Don’t worry about a thing. Just give us a life.

Alex : And soon.

Judith : I didn’t realise you felt this way. I just have to get my life in order.

Nessie : Oh yes, here we go again… (sigh)

Judith : No really, you’ll be up and going soon. No ifs and buts … it’s a promise …

* * *

Let me explain:

Alex and Nessie are two women from my novel in progress … in fact the progress is so long and so slow that nothing has been written for a couple of years. So there they are, behind my back, having a wee chat about me.

In the book – the book that isn’t yet a book – Alex is Nessie’s daughter-in-law. The other day I opened the file to start re-engaging with the characters in preparation to write again. I suppose that’s what they are referring to in the beginning! It was good to make contact again with them, like bumping into old friends in the supermarket. It’s nice to know they’re still talking to me, even if somewhat grumpily. I love writing and have done so since I was a child.

The anxiety and inner turmoil that Nessie and Alex were referring to makes it a little more complicated than it might be, but for me it’s also just part of it all. And with it comes the procrastination, from that feeling that every problem in the whole world has to be “dealt with” in an overwhelming way – even trivial things can become huge – before I can sit down to indulge in my true bliss – writing. I’m like a cat going round and round in circles, pawing at the furry nest of my desk, before diving into the dream world of my fiction. And that circling or preparation to write has to be unimpeded by phone calls or problems or suddenly remembered forgotten tasks otherwise I’m back in the real world of worry again.

On the other hand, if I can just get down to it, these feelings can be nourishing as well. And when I direct the energy of the anxiety, rather than implode within it, it can be energising rather than enervating.

I guess also the anxiety contributes to my intense interest in people, that tendency to hold back and observe from the outside, to try and understand what makes people tick in a seemingly normal sort of way. This, for me, is vital in creating complex fictional characters. It’s all a matter of curiosity and exploration. I’m quite shy and I’m usually pretty bumbly and inarticulate when it comes to speaking, so writing is my means of expression. When I get my words and grammar mixed up in conversation, people sometimes say, “And you call yourself a writer!” Well, yes, I do. But I don’t call myself a speaker. I’m never asked to speak or read at book festivals, and that suits me!

But anyway … on we go. Anxious or depressed or fluffy and frittery – all these states are just manifestations of who I am, and they all contribute to my particular outlook in life. When I was in my teens I came across this quote by, I think, James Thurber – “Look not backwards in anger nor forwards in fear but around in awareness.” This notion has always been an underlying guiding influence for me. I just have to remember it and everything generally turns out pretty well all right!

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